Let’s Get a Better Deal on Plutonium Disposition

November 22, 2016 | 11:48 am
Photo: Savannah River Site
Ed Lyman
Director, Nuclear Power Safety

President-elect Donald Trump has promised to renegotiate international agreements to get “better deals” for the United States. A good place for him to start would be the U.S.-Russia Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA), which obligates each country to dispose of 34 metric tons of excess plutonium from their military stockpiles, so the dangerous material cannot easily be reused for nuclear weapons. Collectively, this plutonium is enough for more than 15,000 nuclear bombs.

The agreement was originally signed by the Clinton administration in 2000 and amended in 2010, partly in response to a request by Russia. The agreement is a bad deal, at least for the United States. It commits the U.S. government to dispose of the plutonium by converting it into “mixed oxide” (MOX) reactor fuel and burning it in commercial nuclear reactors—a program that is now estimated to eventually cost U.S. taxpayers more than $50 billion and last 50 years or more.

The Department of Energy (DOE) has proposed a feasible alternative that could be accomplished more quickly and at less than half the cost. The agency’s favored dilute-and-dispose approach would mix the plutonium with inert materials and place small quantities of the mixture in waste drums, which then would be buried in a deep underground geologic repository, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico. Another benefit of the dilute-and-dispose method is it poses a smaller risk of nuclear terrorism than the MOX option, which would entail additional handling and transporting weapon-usable materials.

There’s a sticking point, however. Under the terms of the agreement, the United States would have to obtain Russia’s consent to change its plutonium disposal method, just as Russia needed to obtain U.S. consent in 2010 when it wanted to pursue use of its plutonium as fuel for fast reactors instead of light-water reactors. Because the United States accommodated Russia’s request, it was hopeful that Russia would reciprocate, but instead Russia has criticized the U.S. proposal to switch to the cheaper, faster approach. Russia claims the method is reversible, implying that the United States could easily recover the plutonium to increase its nuclear weapon stockpile. That objection has little technical basis, however, and there are ways to address Russian concerns.

In October, Russia suspended implementation of the plutonium agreement as part of a larger chill in U.S.-Russian relations. As a rationale, it cited in part the U.S. plan to reduce its compliance cost by switching to the cheaper dilute-and-dispose method.

Next steps

The United States could of course go it alone and dispose of its plutonium as it sees fit—and the DOE is proceeding with plans to use the dilute-and-dispose approach for six metric tons of excess plutonium that is not part of the 34 metric tons covered by the PMDA. However, there are benefits to doing so within the agreement, such as verification measures, and it would be best if the United States could persuade Russia to resume implementation.

Regardless, the United States should not be compelled to spend a vast sum of money on a failing project simply because that’s what Russia wants.

Fulfilling the agreement would require the United States to finish building and then operate the facility that would fabricate the MOX fuel, which has been under construction since 2007 at the DOE’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The plant is far behind schedule and its projected budget has ballooned beyond anyone’s expectations. The most recent DOE and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimate projected that the plant would not be finished before 2048 and would cost more than $17 billion, roughly 10 times more than initial estimates. Adding operating costs, other program expenses, and uncertainties, DOE estimates the lifecycle cost of the project could exceed $50 billion. The DOE-Army Corps of Engineers report also highlighted construction quality control problems that should raise red flags.

Some in Congress are putting up roadblocks to getting a better deal on plutonium disposition. The MOX program, warts and all, is being kept on life support by South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, who wants to keep wasting federal government money on the project in his state. It’s time for Graham to stop putting parochial interests ahead of the interests of U.S. taxpayers.

President Trump will have the opportunity to use his negotiating skills—and his reportedly good relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin—to persuade Russia to resume complying with its part of the agreement and secure approval for the United States to change its disposition method. Let’s hope the United States and Russia can end their stalemate on plutonium disposition and find a path forward that benefits both nations.

Photo: Savannah River Site

About the author

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Edwin Lyman is an internationally recognized expert on nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism as well as nuclear power safety and security. He is a member of the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management, and has testified numerous times before Congress and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.